Nikki Haley is showing no signs of being a candidate looking for an off-ramp.
The former U.N. ambassador spent Monday aggressively going after front-runner Donald Trump over comments the former president made about her husband, who is deployed abroad. Her campaign fundraised off of it with a flurry of texts and emails, while Haley herself sat for TV and print interviews in recent days and returned repeatedly to the topic at events in South Carolina.
shared a video online of news clips they’d compiled of coverage from years past about Trump’s insults against military members, including saying that Sen. John McCain was “not a war hero” because he was captured in combat.
“You mock one veteran, you’re mocking all veterans,” Haley said on Fox News on Monday.
She twice referred to Trump’s remarks — in which he
questioned her husband’s whereabouts — as “disgusting.” At a campaign stop in her state Monday, she described Trump’s conduct as “unbecoming of a president.”
Few, if any, see the new offensive from Haley as having a tangible impact on the course of the Republican primary. Haley has not walked back comments she made throughout the GOP contest that she will endorse Trump if he is the party’s nominee.
But the aggressive turn by the former U.N. ambassador foreshadows a more acrimonious end to that primary process — one in which it may prove difficult for Trump to mend relations.
It also served as a stark reminder that Trump’s chaotic approach is unlikely to change, even in a moment of peril for President Joe Biden.
Just days before the latest GOP primary blowup, the special counsel report into Biden’s handling of classified documents was released, portraying the president as an
elderly man with a poor memory. But rather than step out of the way of that news cycle — advantageous as it is for the general election, Trump used his Saturday rally to invoke Maj. Michael Haley, who is deployed in the Horn of Africa for the South Carolina Army National Guard — and to welcome a Russia attack of a NATO country that hadn’t hit its defense spending benchmarks.
The comments sent international shock waves, raising the specter that the next president would welcome the dissolution of the most important transatlantic alliance. And it served as a cold reminder for Republicans that Trump operates, primarily, by impulse.
“He can’t help himself,” said Jason Roe, a Republican strategist and former executive director of the state Republican Party in Michigan. “Biden is getting hammered, and all he should be doing is sitting back and letting him self-immolate.”
But Trump, Roe said, “can’t stand not being the focus of the conversation.”
Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump, accused Haley of “setting fire to all of her Democrat money for a vanity project to position herself as the candidate of the Never Trumpers.”
“There has been no bigger fighter for our military men and women than President Trump,” Cheung said in a statement to POLITICO. “Nikki ‘Birdbrain’ Haley likes to talk about her foreign policy chops, but bowing down to China and advocating for forever wars by sending our troops into unnecessary conflicts represent America Last policies she is so fond of. President Trump continues to dominate Haley by wide margins in every poll while conserving resources to beat Crooked Joe Biden in the general.”
Trump’s time in elected politics has been filled with wild boasts, conspiracy theories and, most often, self-inflicted wounds. For every period of time when he’s been praised for showing discipline, he has followed it by stirring up more controversy and chaos. His aides have long argued that, far from a liability, it is his shoot-from-the-hip nature that draws voters to the former president. Allies of Trump scoffed at the idea that the Saturday night missives would complicate this moment of extreme peril for Biden.
“It’s pointless. Nobody cares outside of those very few supporting Nikki and the media looking to stir up anything they can because this has been such a boring cycle,” said a South Carolina Republican strategist who is close to the Trump campaign and was granted anonymity to speak freely.
But even if Trump’s remarks — and the controversy they touched off — don’t affect his standing in the primary, fellow Republicans see them as problematic. And that’s not just because they’ve invited Haley to remain in the race and take more direct shots at Trump — or because of the immense geopolitical ripple effects that they will have. It’s because, on a more narrow level, they will move the campaign conversation away from Biden.
“His characteristically undisciplined messaging is coming out again,” said Jason Shepherd, a former chair of the GOP in Georgia’s Cobb County. “He lacks an ability to keep focused on the task, which at this point is beating Biden. The same old Trump from 2016 and 2020 is coming out.”
Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.